PC Pro, Issue 248

PC Pro Issue 248This month marks a return to Dennis Publishing’s excellent PC Pro with a piece commissioned by editor Tim Danton: The Rise of the Makers.

Designed as both an introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the maker movement and a guide for those who want to get more involved, the piece starts with a history of Sheffield-based gadget maker Pimoroni. Paul Beech and Jon Williamson kindly gave up their time to chat to me about the founding of their company and how the maker movement helped them get started, and it hopefully makes for a fascinating insight into how big an impact the movement can make to individual lives.

Pimoroni’s origin story is followed by a guide to hackspaces, with many thanks to Nottinghack co-founder Dominic Morrow who provided both a history of the hackspace he helped to set up along with a list of tips for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps. John Cole and Taryn Sullivan, of US hobbyist robotics specialist Dexter Industries, also provided invaluable insight of the culture over the pond, while Winchester House School’s Chris Leach described his TinkerShed project to found a hackspace on school grounds.

The following pages look at the hardware you can use at your average hackspace, and how it helped people like Paul and Jon bootstrap their company in a way that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, and a description of some of the big-name projects that have been born of the maker movement: Arduino, the BrickPi, and Pimoroni’s Pibow, as well as events including the Maker Faire franchise. My good friend Bob Stone also features, having worked with York Hackspace on the fascinating Spacehack project.

The piece finishes on a guide to getting involved, including these words of wisdom from Pimoroni’s Paul:

Start doing something. If you haven’t got a hackspace, set it up. Hackspaces are not about laser cutters and 3D printers. They’re a nice fringe benefit, they’re a useful tool. Hackspaces are about people and space. Start finding like-minded people, start talking to them, and that’s a community. You don’t create a community, you just start doing stuff and it grows.

PC Pro Issue 248 is available on shelves of all major supermarkets, most decent newsagents, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Oh, and there’s a glitch in the colophon at the front of the magazine: my name has an arrow pointing to advice about a wine-related smartphone app, whereas my actual tip is the one above regarding using the excellent Fake Name Generator to avoid spam from captive-portal Wi-Fi hotspots.

The MagPi, Issue 32

The MagPi Issue 32The MagPi magazine, created by the Raspberry Pi community, has undergone a major relaunch. Now an official product of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it enjoys a significantly larger budget under the leadership of editor Russell Barnes – with whom I have previously worked on Linux User & Developer – and the result is impressive: both quantity and quality of content has improved, but is still licensed under Creative Commons for free download and non-commercial reuse. When Russell asked me if I wanted to be involved with the relaunch, I naturally agreed and the cover story of this issue is the result.

Russell wanted a feature which highlighted the Raspberry Pi-related crowd-funding campaigns of the past and present, showing the community what they had achieved as a group. After some brainstorming, we decided on a mixed feature format which would combine coverage of the most fiscally successful crowd-funding campaigns, interview extracts with their creators, as well as advice from those who have been there and done that on how others can achieve similar success for their own crowd-funding campaigns.

Naturally, there had to be some balance to the piece, and that took the form of a section detailing a high-profile failure. I was able to talk to the company behind Ziphius – an aquatic drone powered by the Raspberry Pi, long overdue and with backers clamouring for refunds – and find out the problems it had encountered, including the exclusive admission of financial problems it had been withholding from its backers.

While the cover story is the largest of my contributions this month, I have also penned two reviews for this latest issue: a review of the Displayotron-3000 add-on board from Sheffield-based Pimoroni, and the Weaved port-forwarding software designed to make it easier to build internet-accessible services on a Raspberry Pi located behind a locked-down router or firewall.

If you’re interested and would like to read any of the above, you can download the entire magazine as a DRM-free PDF from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 140

Custom PC, Issue 140In this month’s Hobby Tech column I interview my friend and talented maker Bob Stone, review the ZoomFloppy accessory, and review the Gizmo 2 single-board computer, in roughly that order.

Looking at the interview first, I arranged to quiz Bob after bumping into him at an event a while back. Bob was present as a representative of York Hackspace, showing off a project they had been working on dubbed Spacehack. Inspired by a mobile game, Spacehack gives players the job of keeping a rusty old spaceship in one piece by performing various tasks on a physical control panel which remaps everything between rounds. If that weren’t confusing enough, the instructions that appear on your panel may be for a control on someone else’s – leading to plenty of frantic shouting.

Talking to Bob is always a pleasure, and interviewing him was likewise. He’s a man who knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of humour into proceedings, and that hopefully comes across in the piece. Having played Spacehack, I can attest to both its difficulty and its brilliance and if anyone local builds their own – the hardware and software are both permissively licensed, naturally – I’d be up for a tournament.

The ZoomFloppy is a natural extension to the KryoFlux I reviewed back in Issue 131. Where the KryoFlux offers a means to connect old-fashioned floppy drives to a modern computer for archival-grade access, the ZoomFloppy is a little different: it’s designed specifically for Commodore devices. Its most common use, as the name suggests, is to provide an interface between a Commodore 1541/1571 floppy drive and a modern PC but it also offers the ability to talk to any Commodore-compatible serial device: printers, plotters, even modems. Better still, you can talk to these devices from directly within an emulator – I couldn’t help but grin when I loaded an Infocom game into the Vice emulator from the original floppy on an 1571 drive.

Finally, the Gizmo 2. I reviewed the original Gizmo in Issue 125 of Linux User & Developer, and was suitably impressed by its performance. The Gizmo 2, I’m pleased to say, blows its predecessor out of the water but isn’t without its own foibles. During my review, I ran into an issue in the firmware which prevented it from booting any device connected into its USB 3.0 ports. Although USB 2.0 worked fine, this had a negative effect on speed – and while the issue was still outstanding at the time of publication, I’m pleased to say a new BIOS has been released as a result of my feedback which fixes the problem and makes the Gizmo a great choice for anyone who needs x86 compatibility and impressive compute performance from a single-board computer.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your own home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 134

Custom PC Issue 134In this month’s Hobby Tech column I spend a fair amount of my time looking at the excellent Gamebuino, an Arduino-compatible hand-held games console I had the pleasure of backing on Indiegogo. As well as an interview with its creator, Aurélien Rodot, there’s a tutorial on building a cut-down variant on a breadboard, alongside a pair of reviews covering the Banana Pi and HummingBoard i2eX.

First, the reviews. I’ve had a prototype HummingBoard and a retail-model Banana Pi for a while, but have held off on giving either a proper review – although Issue 131 did include a preview of both. In the case of the HummingBoard, I needed to wait for final-release hardware; the Banana Pi, meanwhile, suffered from low-quality early-release software. Thankfully, both issues have now been addressed – the former thanks to the ever-lovely New IT, the latter due to the diligent work of the software developers working on the Banana Pi project – and I’ve been able to dedicate two pages this issue to a full head-to-head review of both devices.

My interview with Rodot comes off the back of his hugely successful Indiegogo campaign to build an Arduinio-compatible hand-held games console. Ending more than a thousand per cent above his original goal, the project caught the public’s attention in a major way – and with one of the finished products in my hand, it’s easy to see why. Although its 32KB of program storage, 2KB of RAM and tiny Nokia LCD are minimalist, the device is easily accessible for those wanting to learn game programming and can even act as an I²C controller thanks to two broken-out buses on the top-side.

Sadly, there’s no way to get your hands on a Gamebuino post-Indiegogo until Rodot launches his web store – planned for October, he tells me – so to tide readers over this month’s column includes a two-page tutorial on building your own. Although significantly cut down compared to the real thing – there’s no light sensor, speaker, battery, or micro-SD card reader – it’s a quick and easy project that allows users to start playing with the Gamebuino ecosystem ahead of the device’s general availability.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 128

Custom PC Issue 128In this specially-numbered issue of Custom PC – the issue in which a signed eight-bit integer would overflow, in case it wasn’t obvious – my regular five-page Hobby Tech column covers turning a Raspberry Pi into a TOR proxy, using the Keyrah v2 on an old Amiga A1200 chassis, a review of the Intel Galileo, and a look at the daftest Pi accessory yet. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a two-page interview with the UEFI Forum’s Mark Doran to enjoy.

First, Hobby Tech. In this month’s tutorial, I show the reader how to turn a Raspberry Pi Model B – or Model A with optional USB network adapter – into a proxy that provides access to TOR, The Onion Router Project, a privacy-enhancing network that encrypts your internet traffic and shuffles it around before popping it out of a random exit node. Although it’s possible to run TOR software directly on a PC, having a hardware proxy can help get otherwise unsupported devices – like the Apple iPad – onto the TOR network.

The piece on the Keyrah v2 came about when I was looking for ways to use the chassis and keyboard I had replaced on my Amiga 1200. Although badly yellowed, the keyboard was fully working and throwing it away seemed a shame; thankfully, the Keyrah makes that necessary by interfacing with the Amiga keyboard and turning it into a USB keyboard for modern machines, while also providing two connectors for traditional joysticks. Coupled with yet another Raspberry Pi, it was possible to turn the empty A1200 chassis into a fully-functional computer – and surprisingly quickly, too.

Intel’s Galileo is the company’s first Arduino-certified device, and a showcase for its Quark processor. Based on the original Pentium architecture – complete with the F00F Bug erratum – the Quark is Intel’s attempt to take on ARM in the embedded space, and if the Galileo is any indicator it still has a way to go. Slower at general-purpose computing than a Pi and at IO than a true Arduino, the Galileo is hard to love – but the presence of a mini-PCIe socket on the back suggests it could find a home in more complex projects.

Finally for Hobby Tech, there’s a look at cooling a Raspberry Pi with the smallest active heatsink I’ve ever seen. Barely covering the tip of my finger, the heatsink was an impulse purchase from eBay and cost nearly as much as the Pi on which it is attached; it’s certainly eye-catching, however, and my core temperature readings may be of interest to anyone using a Pi in high ambient temperatures or in cases with otherwise stagnant airflow.

My last contribution to this issue is the interview with Mark Doran. While the extract published in Linux User & Developer concentrated mainly on Secure Boot and its increasing adoption after initial fear in open source projects, this extract looks more at UEFI itself and how it came to be. For historical interest, there’s also what I believe to be the first comprehensive time-line of the BIOS, beginning in 1975 with Gary Kildall coining the term to describe part of his CP/M operating system.

All this, plus the usual selection of stuff written by people who aren’t me, is available at newsagents, corner shops and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 137

Linux User & Developer Issue 137In Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer this month, you’ll find an interview with Mark Doron of the UEFI Forum nestled alongside my usual four-page spread of news.

For those unfamiliar with his work, the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is the modern replacement for the aged and creaking Basic Input-Output System (BIOS) which can trace its roots all the way back to the original IBM PC. As Doran tells it:

When I first started working on this back in the late 90s, I had the interesting experience of going to IBM and talking to them about the need to change how firmware is constructed for Intel Architecture machines, based on limitations we were running into with conventional BIOS technology. A couple of the guys in the audience, no big surprise perhaps, were part of the original team from Boca Raton that was building the PC AT and the conventional BIOS with it. They said ‘you know, the mission we were handed originally was to build code that would support a product that was meant to be 250,000 machines to end-of-life; we had no idea when we sat down to do that that this code would still be kicking around 20, 25 years later.’

That impressive reign is coming to an end with the introduction of the far more flexible and easy-to-understand UEFI. Its adoption in open source projects has been slow, however: concerns over Microsoft’s role in signing binaries for the Secure Boot portion of the system, including fears that the technology could be used to lock third-party operating systems like Linux out of the market altogether, left a sour taste in the mouths of many.

That’s changing, with the Linux Foundation itself now a member of the UEFI Forum group. Much of my discussion with Doran, and in particular in this interview extract, centred around the improving adoption of UEFI and Secure Boot support in open-source projects – a shift he highlights as the result of a lot of bridge-building and better explanation of his group’s goals.

In addition to the interview, my regular four-page spread of news this month covers comments made in favour of open standards and open-source software by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, Nvidia’s contribution of open-source patch sets to the Nouveau project, the launch of the DARPA Open Catalogue, the impending launch of the revised Fuze Powered by Raspberry Pi design – complete with a small price reduction, and more.

Linux User & Developer Issue 137 is available at all good newsagents and a few not-so-good ones now, digitally via Zinio and similar services, or direct from Imagine Publishing via the official site.

Custom PC, Issue 127

Custom PC Issue 127Regular readers of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine may notice that there’s been a dramatic redesign by editor Ben Hardwidge this month. The size of the magazine has been increased, returning to its original A4 footprint, and the overall look has been brought bang up to date. It’s something of a rebirth for the publication, and one that comes with good news for fans of my eponymous Hobby Tech column: thanks to extremely positive reader feedback, from this issue forth the column will be five pages long instead of four – making it the longest column in the magazine by far.

This month, as the cover splash demonstrates, I cover work I’ve done restoring an original rubber-key ZX Spectrum using a replica faceplate developed by Rich Mellor of RWAP Software. A long-time Sinclair supporter, Rich also took the time to answer my questions in a brief interview segment; if you’ve ever wondered what would possess someone to spend time and money developing a range of products and accessories for a system that hasn’t been in production for approaching three decades, I’d say it’s well worth a read.

I also walk the reader through using a Raspberry Pi as a secondary display. While I’ve done something similar before, back in Custom PC Issue 123, this time it’s a little different: I’m using a Pi to revitalise a SoundMaster High Resolution Monochrome Monitor I recently acquired, using its single composite video input to add a wonderfully anachronistic amber display to my desktop. The same technique, which relies on the ability to forward X data over SSH, can be used to add any composite or HDMI compatible display to any networked system.

Finally, I offer my thoughts on the PiFace Control & Display accessory for the Raspberry Pi, kindly provided by CPC. Built for embedded designs, the PiFace C&D adds a 16×2 LCD, a bunch of buttons, a three-way joystick and an infra-red receiver to the Pi’s GPIO port. The result is a system which can be controlled away from a keyboard and mouse, and it comes with plenty of Python-powered example code to get the user started. I’ve already had an idea or two for projects…

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours if you venture to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, stay indoors where it’s warm and pick up copy digitally via services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 131

Linux User & Developer Issue 131The cover of this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine highlights two of my latest features: a review of the Intel MinnowBoard and an interview with its evangelist Scott Garman. The direct comparison to the far cheaper Raspberry Pi, just to clarify, was an editorial decision in which I had no part.

The MinnowBoard is an interesting piece of equipment: based on a single-core 32-bit Intel Atom processor, it packs surprising power into a sub-10W package: gigabit Ethernet, USB, SATA and audio ports are all present and correct, while a ‘Lure’ connector gives access to additional capabilities including several PCI Express lanes.

The hardware itself isn’t the most interesting feature of the MinnowBoard, however. Intel has opted to make the board fully open, releasing schematics, Gerbers, firmware source code, and a Board Support Package (BSP) for the Yocto Project – certification for which the board carries proudly.

In this, the MinnowBoard is head and shoulders above the Raspberry Pi, which is a closed design, while offering significantly more power. Sadly, that power comes at a considerable price – you can expect to pay at least £160 for the MinnowBoard compared to £30 for the Pi. The MinnowBoard also struggles to compete with AMD’s equivalent, the Gizmo from Sage Electronics, which features a faster 64-bit dual-core processor with greater performance and wider OS compatibility and comes bundled with useful tools for embedded hardware and software development at a very similar cost.

Still, it’s an exciting project – and one Scott Garman, Yocto Project contributor, Intel employee, and the evangelist for the MinnowBoard project, is justifiably excited about. In my interview, Scott provided hints at the reasoning behind certain design decisions for the MinnowBoard, promises of increased compatibility with operating systems other than the bundled Angstrom Linux build, and admitted his undying respect for the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

All this, plus my usual four pages of Linux, open source, open hardware and open governance news, can be found betwix the pages of Linux User & Developer at your local newsagent, supermarket, or online via the Zinio digital distribution platform and others.

Custom PC, Issue 121

Custom PC Issue 121Another month, another Hobby Tech column for Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC magazine. This month, I’ve been mostly playing with some toys that the rather lovely people at Ciseco have sent me: the Pi-Lite and the Raspberry Pi Wireless Inventors Kit.

But first, the traditional vintage computing section – and it’s a corker this month. Spanning a bumper two pages, this month I spoke to my rather talented friend Charlotte Gore about a project she’s been working on: the SIDI, a MIDI-to-SID-chip adapter designed with musicians firmly in mind.

The SID chip, for those who don’t know, was developed by Bob Yannes and found fame as the component of the Commodore 64 that really made the system stand out from the crowd. Famously described by Yannes’ colleague Charles Winterble as “10 times better than anything out there, and 20 times better than it needs to be,” the SID chip is still in use today to provide crunchy sounds for everyone from chiptune artists to mainstream musicians.

Trouble is, it’s a pain in the proverbial to use if you’re not a techie. That’s where the SIDI project comes in: a brave attempt to create a control surface that allows a musician, with absolutely no knowledge of programming, the Commodore 64, or the SID chip itself, to twiddle a few knobs, press keys on a MIDI keyboard and coax forth those iconic sounds. Even at this early stage of development – and when Gore started the project, her electronics experience was around the level of changing batteries in remote controls – it’s a stunning creation, and if you have any interest in electronic music, the C64, SID chips or how vintage electronics can be reborn I’d heartily recommend giving the feature a read.

Next, on to Ciseco. The company was kind enough to send over a couple of their latest toys: the white edition of the Pi-Lite, and the Raspberry Pi Wireless Inventors Kit. The first is an add-on board for the Pi that provides an LED matrix, programmable via the UART connection on the GPIO pins. To make full use of the gift, I create a small tutorial – highlighted on the cover splash – for displaying a scrolling graph of CPU activity. As usual, the code is up on GitHub if you’re curious.

The RasWIK, to use its contracted name, is a bit more involved: not due to launch until next month, the kit provides a radio-equipped Arduino clone, a matching radio board for the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header, and a selection of components for experimentation. I had an absolute blast playing with this, even though at the time of writing the software was still at a very early stage. It provides possibly the simplest platform for experimenting with wireless sensor networks I’ve ever seen – and there’ll be a second review of the kit, written when the software was a bit more polished, appearing in a future Linux User & Developer magazine.

All this, plus the usual maker-themed news snippets, can be yours if you just pop over to your local newsagent, supermarket, or even just stay in and download a copy of the magazine from Zinio or another digital distribution platform.

Custom PC, Issue 117

Custom PC Issue 117This month’s Custom PC sees my interview slot taken up with a chat to Nick Thibieroz, senior manager of AMD’s Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Gaming Engineering division, regarding his company’s latest attempt at increasing the immersion of games: TressFX.

If you’re not familiar with the technology, and if that’s the case shame on you for not following my work on bit-tech, TressFX – or to give it its full name, TressFX Hair – is a GPU-accelerated physics engine designed to simulate the interaction between a character’s hair and the surrounding environment. Wind, rain, branches, even the character’s body all interact with thousands of simulated hair strands to create a surprisingly realistic effect.

It’s something the industry has been working towards for years – hardly a SIGGRAPH event goes by without Nvidia showcasing another hair simulation system – but the computational complexity of the task has made it difficult to implement in a working game engine. That’s something AMD has solved, and it waited until it had the system in a shipping game – the new Tomb Raider reboot – before announcing the technology.

The biggest feature of the issue, however, is a special one: an in-depth look at how the development of mobile hardware differs from that of desktop hardware. With input from industry veterans including Nvidia, AMD, Intel and Imagination Technologies, it’s a – hopefully – interesting look at how developing for portable platforms has resulted in some significantly different technologies emerging.

Nvidia is a perfect example: it talks up its Tegra mobile processor as having GeForce-like graphics processing elements, but in truth there’s a distinct difference in how the two technologies work. Interestingly, it’s also the case that development of mobile processing hardware – which has to work in very tight power envelopes – has dramatically changed how the company approaches its power-hungry desktop graphics hardware, too.

It’s a big feature, and one I’m proud to have worked on: hopefully, by the end, readers will be able to better understand how smartphone and tablet hardware – which, thanks to projects like the Kickstarter-funded Ouya console, are increasingly finding their way onto people’s desks – compares to traditional desktop devices.

If you want to learn more about TressFX Hair and its development, or about the development of mobile-centric hardware and the challenges therein, you could do worse than picking up a copy of Custom PC Issue 117 – available in dead-tree format and digitally via Zinio or most other services.

This also marks the last time my column in Custom PC will take the form of a two-page interview spread: big changes are afoot, and I’m proud to say that the column will be taking on a very different – and hopefully more engaging – format from the next issue onwards.